Out of America: Down and zonked out in Washington DC

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WASHINGTON - No one much likes poking their nose into other people's business in their spare time. But when you come across what appears to be an unattended dying man in one of the safer neighbourhoods of Washington DC, what choice is there?

He was on his back, a stocky, well-muscled man in his twenties sprawled out in the morning sun. In a city with thousands of homeless people, it is not uncommon to see drunk, drugged or sleeping human beings on the streets, which might explain why people were wandering past this one without so much as a second glance. But to a less familiar eye he looked different: his arms were thrown back above his head, as if he had been struck down suddenly. His eyes were half-open and unblinking. You could see his eyeballs, yellowy and static beneath a milky film.

If he had stirred when I shook him, or grunted, or at least given some sign of recovery, I would perhaps have wandered on my way. But he did not. Shaking could not rouse him, or even extract a murmur. Nor could shouts. More worrying still, his curled-up left hand concealed a half-empty brown bottle of pills. The only perceptible movement came from the rapid, but alarmingly slight, rise and fall of his chest.

The security guards from the nearby Holiday Inn did not appear unduly surprised to hear about the man, but they did call an ambulance. Someone opened his belt bag to see if it yielded any further clues to his condition. It did: it was stuffed full of little brown pharmaceutical bottles. There was also a razor, which was probably not purchased to shape his tufts of youthful-looking facial curls.

At last a police car appeared, which I flagged down. The officer slowly eased his bulk out of the car and sauntered over to the body with a seen-it-all- done-it-all swagger. After a few exploratory prods, he stood astride the body and began slapping him hard on the face.

By now a small crowd had gathered. It was impossible not to notice that they, too, lacked any apparent concern. There were no cries for a doctor, no concerned questions about the whereabouts of the ambulance. They simply assumed that they were looking at a young black criminal whose survival was nothing more than a matter of curiosity.

In the circumstances, however, this is hardly surprising. American fear - and loathing - of crime is at fever pitch. Consider the events of the past few days: on Friday police disclosed that James 'Pops' Jordan, father of the basketball star Michael Jordan, had been shot dead and dumped in a river. Three days earlier a man in fatigues burst into a McDonald's in Wisconsin and began blasting away, killing two people. The same day a 15-year-old in Missouri shot his mother while they were at the cinema together; yesterday a businessman was dug out of a bunker after being kidnapped 12 days ago . . . and so the litany goes on.

It is into this atmosphere that President Bill Clinton has lobbed his crime bill, no doubt hoping to bolster his popularity when his two other current domestic initiatives - his deficit- reducing budget package and planned health-care reforms - have met with considerable public distrust. The bill might easily have been penned by the Republican law-and-order brigade. It calls for dollars 3.4bn ( pounds 2.4bn) to be spent on 50,000 new officers, military-style boot-camps for young offenders, the increased use of the death penalty and the implementation of the Brady Bill, which mandates a five-working-day waiting period for gun purchases.

All this should go down well with Americans, most of whom (according to a Time/CNN poll) overwhelmingly support the death penalty, more prisons, more police and stricter gun controls. But they remain cynical about the capacity of government to do anything. After all, George Bush sponsored a similar bill which - as many fear Mr Clinton's will - died in Congress. Despite the bill and Mr Clinton's campaign pledge for 100,000 new police, a USA Today/Gallup/CNN poll found that only 32 per cent of the public approved of his handling of crime so far.

What of the dying man? After a hefty slapping, he woke up and, seeing a cop's face looming above him, launched into a stream of invective. As he regained consciousness, his drugged mind began to take stock of his situation, and especially his exposed narcotics supply. Suddenly, he looked alert. 'OK, which one of you called the cop?' He stared around the group before turning to me. 'Was it you? WAS it?'

He was pointing now, just as skinheads do in football crowds when they've marked you out for assault. 'Well, was it? Was it?' I left without waiting to see the ambulances arrive.